State's elderly numbers growing

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Alaska was supposed to be a one-year stint when Lorene Harrison arrived in 1928 to take a job teaching music and home economics in Anchorage, a small frontier town in the wilderness.

She was 23, a farm girl from Sterling, Kan., seeking adventure in the northern territory, decades before it became a state.

Over time, she married, started a family, opened a hat shop, founded the city's concert association and hosted a local talk show. The city matured right along with her, and there was never any reason to leave, said the 99-year-old widow.

"I can't think of anything I need that we don't have here," she said.

Not so long ago, older Alaskans tended to leave. Medical care was limited in the Far North, and doctors and hospitals, as much as sun and warmth,

beckoned elders south.

But because of the changing attitudes of Alaska seniors such as Harrison, Alaska now has the second-fastest growing elder population in the nation. Between 2000 and 2003, Alaska's older population increased 14 percent, second only to Nevada, which saw a 15 percent jump, according to the Census Bureau.

It reflects the growing number of Alaskans who choose to stay with their roots. And with that growing number of seniors comes new challenges in geriatric care, housing and transportation services.

The percentage of people 65 and older has nearly tripled since construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline brought more than 30,000 job-seekers to the young state in the mid-1970s, said state statistician Greg Williams.

Many of those workers are now retiring, while a growing number of earlier pioneers also have chosen to stay in Alaska. On top of that, some baby boomers are bringing their aging parents to the state.

Gray hair was a rare sight in Alaska when David Frain moved to the state along with thousands of others in 1974. That's no longer true, said Frain, administrator of the Anchorage Pioneers' Home, a state-run assisted living facility.

"I think it's a combination of family roots and better medical services now," Frain said.

Then there's the view, said retired Anchorage attorney David Pree, 77, as he gazed out a window of the home at the snowcapped Chugach Mountains framing a backdrop of fall colors.

"I look out there and I feel the majesty of the Lord. It gives me power," said Pree, a 50-year resident who ignores doctors' orders to leave during winter, which tends to aggravate his asthma and emphysema. "I don't want to leave. I want to be buried here."

Altogether, close to 39,000 people - 6 percent of the state's population - are older Alaskans.

The state still has the smallest percentage of elderly residents in the United States, far below the national average of 12.3 percent. But, as with the rest of the nation, Alaska is shouldering a growing share of older citizens.

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